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Theoretical papers

Structuring the argument of a theoretical paper in the social sciences

A guideline for presenting original ideas convincingly to colleagues in humanities and sciences

First, read the introductory text at this link: doc. (Dear students: It is important to read this text carefully, because I may not have time to go through it in class. Please ask if anything is unclear -- I always welcome questions and suggestions.)

After that, go through the following list. One thing at a time!

  • Browse general literature on academic writing, e.g. good essay writing. and ten simple rules.
  • Learn the citation style corresponding to your main discipline, e.g APA for social sciences, Chicago or MLA for humanities. For APA, use these citation guidelinessample paper, and submission checklist
  • Read my guidelines for structuring an argument (pdfpptdoc) and using examples.
  • Formulate your question. It's harder than you think!
  • Find the best relevant literature. Combine different search terms. Google Scholar is the most convenient but depending on topic you may need different databases.
  • If there is not enough good relevant literature, change your question or plan an empirical (masters?) study to address it.
  • Write a first draft of your abstract using the above guideline (see again this doc). 
  • Create a tabular argument (form) and discuss or present it in class. If you are writing a BA-Arbeit or MA-Seminararbeit, include this filled-in table as an appendix and make sure the main text corresponds to the appendix.
  • Ask for feedback, but don't reply to it. Instead, creatively revise your materials. Allow time for several major revisions.
  • If necessary, challenge accepted dogma. Courage is part of critical thinking.
  • Check for logical fallacies in your own and others' arguments (including mine).
  • If there is time, give a talk (ppt).
  • Base the structure of the text on the tabular argument, but avoid using the terms in the left column in the text ("main topic", "main thesis", etc.) (doc). 
  • Imitate the writing style of your main cited literature - as if submitting to the same journal. Avoid a journalistic or popular writing/speaking style. Every sentence should be as true and informative as possible. Avoid exaggerations or clichés. An exception to this rule is the presentation of examples at the start. They should be vivid and help your audience to quickly understand the main problem.
  • Avoid long summaries of literature sources. If you want to summarize a given article, chapter or book, your summary should be no longer than half a page. In any case, your paper should not read like a series of summaries. It is your argument, not someone else's! Refer to the literature only to support your argument.
  • Avoid plagiarism, the theft of intellectual property. There are two main kinds: copying wording (Formulierungen) and stealing ideas. Regarding wording, it is never acceptable to copy a passage of more than a few words from another source. It is already plagiarism if you copy half a sentence. You can copy a phrase if it is in common use; if not, cite the source. If you want to say something that many people agree upon, you still have to say it in your own words. To stay on the safe side, avoid copying and pasting altogether except to avoid spelling mistakes (e.g. the name "Csikszentmihalyi"). Regarding ideas, don't present somebody else's idea as if it were your own; instead, cite the source. To decide what is plagiarism and what is not, imagine that you are the author of the material you are using, and ask yourself how they would feel about your text if they read it. Before submitting your essay, enter it to a free online plagiarism checker.
  • Revise your abstract to match your revised table, and revise your table to match the main text. Everything in the abstract should be expanded upon in the table, and everything in the table should be expanded upon in the main text.
  • Avoid problems encountered by other students (ppt)

 Before submitting your work, check that you have been through the whole list.


Univ.-Prof. Dr.phil.

Richard Parncutt

Univ.-Prof. Dr.phil. Richard Parncutt Centre for Systematic Musicology

Merangasse 70
8010 Graz, Austria

Telefon:+43 316 380 - 8161

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